Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Sellout

I overlooked the presence of The Sellout on the TCM schedule until it was too late to blog about it before the movie aired. Thankfully, it's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Walter Pidgeon stars as Haven Allridge, the editor of a paper in a medium-sized city that could be Anytown USA. He goes just out of town to visit his daughter (Paula Raymond) and her prosecutor husband (Cameron Mitchell). "Just out of town" happens to be across the county line, however, and on the way back, Haven gets pulled over for speeding. He left his wallet at the office, and gets sent to the county jail, which he discovers is an incredibly corrupt place, where the inmates mete out their own form of justice in the form of a kangaroo court. All of this is done with the approval of Sheriff Burke (Thomas Gomez). But what they don't know is that they've picked on the wrong man. There's an old adage that you never mess with somebody who buys his ink by the barrel, and Haven uses that to his advantage, writing a series of editorials decrying the corruption in the county.

However, he doesn't realize just how corrupt it is. He's gotten three dozen affidavits from people who would be willing to testify to the corruption, but his prosecutor son is reluctant to prosecute this particular case. And the county thugs are so brazen that they kill a driver who distributes the newspaper in one of their trucks. This causes non-corrupt city cop Capt. Maxwell (Karl Malden) to call in the state, who send a special prosecutor (John Hodiak) to handle the case. In the meantime, though, the corrupt county machine gets to Haven, who suddenly goes missing along with all the affidavits he had. Eventually he returns, but only to tell people he's not testifying and that he's gotten a job in Detroit, which is presumably quite some ways away....

The Sellout is one of thoe MGM message pictures of the early 1950s. Warner Bros. is generally the studio known for its social commentary, having made a series of hard-hitting movies back in the 1930s. By the 1950s, Louis B. Mayer had been pushed out at MGM, and new studio chief Dore Schary wanted to make some movies that had an edge to them. The problem is that most of these movies are a bit too obvious in making their point. We get it five minutes into Haven's experience at the county jail just how bad the sheriff is. And we know fully well that the story is going to have a relatively satisfying ending. But MGM had a stable of capable actors such as Pidgeon who gave a professional performance, even when the material was less than perfect. The result is a movie that's interesting if flawed. If the Warner Archive movies weren't so expensive relative to other DVDs, it might well be worth it to get a copy of the movie on DVD. To be honest, though, I think this is the sort of movie that probably ought to be included in some box set with other similar MGM films from the same time, such as Scandal at Scourie, which is airing tomorrow on TCM and also stars Walter Pidgeon.

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